As a sixth-grader, Don Robinson first came to the big city. He was 12 when he first came to Crosley Field to see the Reds he listened to on the radio every night in Kenova, W. Va. Kenova is 60 miles from here if you measure with a ruler. If you measure by a kid's dreams, Kenova is a million miles from pitching for the Reds.
He wanted to pitch for the Reds. He was always a sports star. He was an all-state football player as a quarter-back. Colleges wanted him. He was a big kid, 6-feet-3 and 230 pounds, the big strong quarterback with an arm that Fran Tarkenton would kill for.
Robinson didn't want to go to college. He had declared an armistice in his battle with books. If they didn't bother him, he would leave them alone. What he wanted was to play professional baseball. The scouts from the Reds, who came to see him pitch all the time, told him he would be a great pitcher.
Robinson came to imagine himself on the mound at Riverfront Stadium. He escaped high school in 1975. The Reds then were the biggest thing in sports. The Big Red Machine. A dynasty. The 1927 Yankees may have been good, but they were no Big Red Machine. Bench and Rose, Morgan and Perez, Gullett -- and, in his dreams, Don Robinson, who remembers today the first game he ever saw the Reds play.
"The Reds and the Pirates," he said. "Bob Veale pitched for the Pirates. The Reds won the game because Manny Mota dropped a fly ball."
Robinson was today's hero.
Pitching for the Pirates.
Against the Reds.
In Riverfront Stadium.
With his mom and dad and a bunch of Kenova friends in the stands.
The Pirates now lead the Reds, 2-0, in a best-of-five series for the National League championship. In both games, Don Robinson, who would have been a Red, was the last pitcher the Pirates used. Both times, he was as good as a kid could dream of being.
He struck out the Reds' leading hitter, Ray Knight, with the bases loaded in the 11th inning to save a 5-2 victory in the first game.
Today he struck out Dave Concepcion, the third hitter in the Reds' lineup, and forced mighty George Foster to ground out weakly -- both men beaten with the winning run at second base in the ninth inning.
If a baseball manager dealt with Mephistopheles for a relief pitcher, he would ask for delivery of a mean giant who throws roaring lasers. Gimme a guy -- I don't care if he knows books or not -- who knows where the heat is going.
Gimme Don Robinson.
"I was going to make him my Rich Gossage," said Chuck Tanner, the Pittsburgh manager. Gossage made his reputation with the Pirates. His reputation is that he would throw fast balls at his grandmother if she took too good a cut at his slider. Gossage made his millions by leaving the Pirates to join the Yankees.
"Don has everything Gossage does," Tanner said. "He's really suited for relief."
Only problem was, he was too good as a starting pitcher. He was 14-6 in 1978, rookie arm of the year. The Reds had passed over him in the draft of high school players -- "A terrible disappointment," Robinson said -- and the Pirates put him in the minor leagues for three seasons.
He can tell you how many times he has faced the Reds. Six times. He can tell you if he ever beat them at Riverfront Stadium. Once, in April, this season. What he would tell you today, though, was that pitching in this series for the league championship, pitching against the team of his dreams, is enough to make a guy forget how much his arm hurts.
He first hurt it this spring. He couldn't pitch more than four or five innings now. That is why he is working in short-relief. The save in the first game was the first of his career. Today's victory was his first in relief.
"The adrenalin was flowing through me so much that if I broke my arm, I wouldn't feel it." Robinson said.
No one knows what is wrong with Robinson's shoulder. "A ligament, or a muscle, or the rotator cuff, or something," Robinson said. "Twelve different doctors have told me 12 different things."
"A sore arm?" said Johnny Bench, the Reds' catcher. "I didn't notice that."
Robinson struck out Bench to begin the 10th inning today.
"I thought he was better today than he was in the first game. He threw two pitches right by me."
At his best, Robinson throws a 95-mph fast ball. His curve ball is not much slower. "I used to have a slow curve," Robinson said. "But a coach told me to forget it, that I'd never get people in the major leagues out with that."
Today, wearing the wrong teams' colors in Riverfront Stadium, Don Robinson got enough major league people out to be a hero in the Pittsburgh locker room, where, as always in victory, everyone had a grand time.
There was Willie Stargell in a black felt hat, telling how he came to run up on second base when Dave Parker already stood on the sack. Tim Foli, ahead of both men, had stopped at third because he thought Stargell's long fly ball would be caught. It fell for a double -- in Stargell's mind, at least.
"Wink at me when you know it's a double and I'll run," Foli said to Stargell, who was thrown out retreating to first on the play.
"You just don't ask a beer truck to put it in reverse when it's going down a hill," Stargell said, laughing, and from across the room you heard the pitcher, John Candelaria, shouting into the group of reporters around Robinson, "He blows away Johnny Bench, and they're talking about him and a hill," Stargell said, laughing, and from across the room you heard the Dave Winfield."
Robinson liked that Bench was one of his heroes.